Maybe it's the holiday season. Maybe it's the cooler weather. Maybe it's the sudden jolt of reality that hits when you wake up the day after football championships were crowned and there's abruptly nothing left.
Whichever way you feel, we're closing out the 2011 football season with fond memories, and here's the first of two installments in which we offer a refresher on all that went down the past three-and-a-half months.
With memory-burn fresh from postseason play, we'll start with the playoffs. Here's our take on the final four weeks of football:
We're not saving the toughest for last. A few fit the mold (especially Chaparral vs. Peoria Centennial in the Division II semifinals), but the first-round matchup between Chandler and Avondale Westview in the opening-round monsoon was a doozy. One of the few instances that seeding played out to be "accurate" (Westview at No. 8, Chandler at No. 9), the Wolves won, 35-34, in double-overtime after they lost its top running back (Paul Perkins) to injury in the fourth quarter and a holding call that negated Westview's two-point conversion attempt. A contrast in playing styles to start, the Wolves instead played Westview's ground-and-pound style through the slop. The night yielded turnovers, big plays, missed-big plays and trick plays on both teams, until a second chance led to a couple scoring passes from Darell Garretson to Patrick Baldenegro, and a yellow flag helped send Chandler to the quarterfinals.
This one is a no-brainer. Top-seeded Hamilton entered the Division I championship game on a 53-game winning streak, and a fourth consecutive state championship seemed a foregone conclusion. However, it was No. 3 Desert Vista that dominated from start to finish in a 45-19 victory. The Thunder moved the ball extremely well offensively and didn't let the Huskies get going until the game was out of reach. Hamilton had never given up 45 points in a game before and had never even trailed by 21 points before in Steve Belles' tenure as coach. Desert Vista quarterback Hunter Rodriguez was efficient, and running backs Mike Arredondo, Kaleb Germinaro, Jarek Hilgers and Dominic Kereluk all ran wild at times, as the Thunder never punted.
Speaking of no-brainers, how about a 1-9 team in 2009 and 3-7 in 2010 slipping into the 2011 playoffs as a No. 14 seed? Not enough? OK, how about the fact that San Tan Foothills wins twice to reach the Division V semifinals against higher seeds (including a first-round win at No. 3 Thatcher)? One player lost his father to a motorcycle accident. Others come from troubled backgrounds. Others simply from proud, hard-luck families trying to get by. Led by a couple coaches who've been around these blocks for decades (Rodger Schenks and Jim Jones), football became something more than fun for these kids until the brakes came on in a semifinal loss to eventual Division V champion Yuma Catholic. The body of work from 2011 says Notre Dame, but November belonged to the Sabercats.
Best single-game performance
Saguaro's D.J. Foster was prophetic when, after coach John Sanders held him and several other starters out against Chaparral, the team's star running back said he felt sorry for the next team on the Sabercats' schedule. Foster put up one of the most impressive games in state history that next week, rushing the ball 20 times for 508 yards and 10 touchdowns as Saguaro defeated Peoria Sunrise Mountain, 81-48, in the first round of the Division III postseason. Foster is the only player in Arizona history to rush for more than 500 yards in a game, and the 10 touchdowns also set an 11-man football state record.
Best championship game performance
Chaparral star Davonte Neal started slowly in the Division II title game, muffing a punt that led to a Vail Cienega touchdown and an early 7-0 hole for the Firebirds. Neal made up for his error and then some, finishing the contest with nine carries for 220 yards, nine receptions for 107 yards and three total touchdowns. Neal was likely the state's most versatile star this year, and showed his excellence in many facets against the Bobcats.
Team left for dead that forgot to pay attention
Speaking of Basha, the Bears went from afterthought to revitalized in a three-week span. A win against No. 2 Brophy on the road will do that to a team. Down in the dumps and in need of changes after a three-game losing skid, the Bears' win against Tucson to begin the playoffs left little impression, but the Bears were confident in their defensive changes and accountability again. The Broncos put up big yardage on Basha, but the Bears won the war with turnovers and a 27-yard field goal by Justin Barber in a 32-29 victory.
Playoff matchup we want to see nine more times
Based on health and how the first meeting unfolded, it's Chaparral vs. Centennial. The two premier teams in Division II essentially played the state championship game a week early, and a seismic shift in play and momentum from one half to the other evened things out dramatically in the Firebirds' 31-30 win after it squandered a 17-0 lead at halftime. Both teams were loaded with speed, history and familiarity with one another. What if Centennial's Zach Hoffpauir wasn't essentially playing on one ankle? What if Jalen Ortiz hadn't under thrown Justin Sanchez by five yards at Chaparral's goal line in the final minute? Did Davonte Neal actually fumble on the sidelines that was returned for a touchdown? Pit those schools against each other 10 times, and call it a pick-'em.